Last month, AARP's financial security education and outreach team had the privilege of literally changing someone's life. All it took was a simple 45-question trivia contest and a jumbo-sized $50,000 check.
I'd like to introduce you to our most recent $50,000 sweepstakes winner, Karen Bratkovic, a 67-year-old widow who lives outside Chicago with her two dogs.
First, a little background. Our team sponsors retirement sweepstakes contests once or twice a year, with a twofold purpose: to highlight the resources AARP offers to help you make key financial decisions and to provide each grand-prize winner with enough cash to make a big move toward a more secure retirement. Every retirement trivia question you attempt earns you an additional entry into the sweepstakes drawing. (The next sweepstakes starts Nov. 15!)
Karen called the sweepstakes "a blessing from the sky." She and her husband, who died of leukemia last September, had saved throughout their lives and minimized their expenses. They were even fortunate enough to have a pension from both their employers.
But when her husband died — almost a year to the day before she won the sweepstakes — his pension checks ended. Her smaller pension and Social Security survivor benefits barely cover the mortgage on a house that's way too big for her, and way too far from her family in Tucson. She's been drawing down their modest investments to meet the rest of her monthly needs, which her financial planner has counseled against. "I think the best advice he gave us was, 'Keep your monthly expenses as low as possible.' "
Karen knew she needed to downsize, but — until now — she didn't have the money to get the house in shape to put it on the market. "So I'll be able to fix up the house and make my last move to Arizona. That is what this lets me do," she said. "That's how much this means to me. I just can't believe it — I feel like I won the $6 million lottery."
Let's face it: Fifty grand is never going to be enough to retire on by itself, but wouldn't it be nice to be in a position where a small windfall like that could be the last piece of the puzzle you need to make your retirement plans come together? Many of us have received a gift like this, but too many of us end up using the gift in a way that doesn't maximize our long-term well-being.
If you happen to be expecting a small but rare windfall like this — say a year-end bonus, a buyout package, the proceeds from the sale of your house, an inheritance or our next sweepstakes prize — here are a few smart ways to use it to put you and your family on more solid footing. Talk to a financial planner to see whether they make sense for you.